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State Senate Says Yes To More Help For College Students

Some college students in the nation's third-largest state may get a big break on their tuition this year under a sweeping proposal passed Thursday by the Florida Senate.

For the second year in a row, the Republican-controlled Senate approved an overhaul of the state higher education system that is a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron.

The measure would permanently expand the amount of money provided under the state's popular Bright Futures scholarships to nearly 100,000 students. Top-performing high school students would get either 75 or 100 percent of their tuition costs covered if the measure becomes law.

"We never want to have an obstacle in the way of young men and women being able to complete their university or college education," Negron said. "The bill we passed today really transformed our commitment to higher education."

Florida, in an effort to trim back the cost, scaled back the scholarship program during the Great Recession. Negron has championed the idea of restoring the scholarship amounts as part of an overall package that he and other senators say is designed to make it easier for students to graduate faster.

The Florida Legislature passed a similar bill last year, but it was vetoed last summer by Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott said he objected to parts of the measure aimed at the state's 28 local colleges, including placing enrollment limits on certain four-year degrees offered by the colleges. This year the Senate adopted a bill (SB 4) that only affects Florida's 12 public universities.

Some Florida students still got a one-year boost this school year because extra scholarship money was included in the state's annual budget. A Florida resident going to a public university full time pays about $6,000 a year in tuition and fees.

Negron said he wants the permanent expansion to help parents who are spending time now trying to figure out to pay college bills. He added that he was optimistic that both the Florida House and Scott would go along with this year's proposal, which carries a hefty price tag of nearly $150 million.

Rep. Larry Ahern, a Seminole Republican who oversees the House higher education panel, said he agreed that Florida should increase the amount spent on Bright Futures.

"We should be funding that at the highest possible levels," Ahern said. "The idea is to keep the cost of education low and to keep debt from piling up."